Secret weapon drills

Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part series. To view Part I, click here.

Here are a few 'secret' drills I've learned from some of Britain's best trainers. They are real team builders and work like magic on maturing dogs who think they know it all.

Preseason tune up

Regardless of the age and experience of your dog you should always approach the new season as if he was a six-month-old puppy.

  • Walk him on the leash at heel and blow the stop whistle making him sit down immediately every single time.

  • Set up simple left, right and back drills in easy locations (not in cover) and make him execute them perfectly. Be picky and insist on total obedience.

  • Leave him on stay, go indoors and have a coffee but watch him through the window. Don't allow him to shuffle around.

  • Fire shots and throw cold birds around him while he sits steady.

This should take about a couple of weeks for an older, experienced dog. Do not give him any difficult long retrieves while he is going through a preseason tune up simply treat him like a young dog just learning the ropes.

When you have him absolutely perfect you can progress to the following.

The false mark

Have a bird boy standing downwind throw a bumper and fire a shot. Your dog will believe that if he runs straight ahead he will find a reward.

Send your dog but stop him on the whistle half way. (If he keeps running forget this drill and go back to teaching the stop whistle).

Once he stops count to ten then cast him right where you will have already spread a line of birds he just can't fail to find. Not only will your dog have success he will have exchanged the reward of a bumper for a plump juicy bird…excellent.

What do you suppose your dog will think now? He'll think you are a genius.

Next time take him to another spot, send and stop him but this time cast him left. Low and behold he will find another bird. Now he's a believer. You are conjuring birds out of nowhere and in his eyes you are a saint.

You can't do this all the time or your dog will lose faith in himself but for a headstrong dog it's a great team building drill.

Don't fence me in

Another effective routine you can use to win your dog's confidence involves an enclosed field.

Before you bring your pupil out of the truck go to the corner of the field where two fences meet, preferably one that is downwind, and throw several bumpers over the fence directly in front of you. (We will call that 'Location 1'). Next pitch several more bumpers over the barrier to your side (Location2) then turn 180 degrees and walk 50 yards and drop several more in Location 3.

Spread all the bumpers out at least five yards apart, we want to make it easy for your dog to walk right into one.

Collect your dog and walk him to the same corner and drop a bumper at his feet then turn and walk him away. As you do so have a buddy quietly pick up the bumper you just dropped.

When you are 100 yards away (the distance is unimportant just as long as you are confident your dog will respond to your commands) send your dog for the bumper he saw you drop in the corner.

He thinks he knows exactly where to find it but he will be wrong. When he has hunted the area for a minute blow the stop whistle and order him to go back to Location 1. He will look at the fence and he won't believe you. He knows he saw you drop the bumper in front of the fence, nevertheless insist that he goes back.

Don't allow him to run around like a headless chicken, he knows what 'back' means and he must comply. Of course when he leaps over the fence he will run straight into a bumper.

Now drop another bumper in the same corner, have your buddy secretly pick it up again as you walk your dog away then turn and send him back. When he realizes the bumper isn't there he will want to go back to Location 1 he as he did previously.

Stop him and instead cast him to Location 2. Again he won't believe you but don't allow him to run around. He has already been taught to cast and you must insist that he goes. The moment he complies he will run into another bumper and will wonder just how the hell you do it.

On the final run send him once more to the corner for the seen bumper

(Already picked up by your cooperative buddy) but this time stop him and cast him towards Location 3 where he has no barrier to cross. As long as he follows your directions he will find another dummy .

His belief in you will have grown considerably but his self-confidence will need a boost so drop a last bumper in the corner, walk him away but DO NOT pick it up. Turn your dog around and send him as before but this time let him find the bumper exactly where he expects it to be.

Hunting back

This drill works best along a straight path or track.

Stand on the path with a bird boy standing upwind, directly facing you, 80 yards away. Have him fire a shot and throw a bird.

Send your dog for the mark and as he reaches the half-way stage have the second bird boy drop another bird 20 yards behind him.

Before your dog reaches the first bird stop him. Now blow your 'hunt back' whistle. He will not have seen the second bird down, nor will he be able to scent it and he won't believe you. He will naturally want to go for the first bird with the scent drifting towards him but do not let him have his way. Insist he obeys your hunt back command and as he does so he will walk right into the second bird.

The reason you are on a pathway is to encourage your dog to come back in a straight line and successfully find the second bird. This drill tends to fall apart in an open field as your dog can hunt back without finding the second bird.

Now change the location and run the same drill but always end by giving him a straightforward mark.

With a little imagination you can run all these drills on water but make sure your dog is already 100 percent on land before you try.

Think through the layout and the wind direction before your dog comes out of the truck, most problems can be avoided with a little pre-planning.


All the above drills are extremely effective techniques for developing your dog's confidence in you. They are intended for experienced dogs with lots of self-confidence but are totally inappropriate for nervous young dogs lacking in experience.

Blue always benefits from a team building session at the start of the season but he's a secure, experienced dog who knows his place in the world. Were I to run these with Harris, my 'Velcro' dog, they would destroy him. Harris is only 18 months old, still learning his trade and constantly looking for my approval, running drills that prove him wrong would completely undermine his confidence.

These are exercises intended for well-trained, experienced retrievers but totally inappropriate for teaching casting to a badly schooled dog.

Use this information as your secret weapon to rebuild teamwork in your older more experienced dogs who already understand all the commands but are not eager to comply.


This column was excerpted from Vic Barlow's book, "British Training for American Retrievers."
Click here to purchase a copy.